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Propaganda in WW1

Propaganda was seen by many as another form of warfare, just as important to the end result as the actual fighting. It was used to encourage unity within a nation and justify countries’ involvement in the war. Propaganda was rife in many forms in both the allied and central countries throughout World War 1. This was done to reach a greater audience than could be done with just newspaper articles. The effect that propaganda had was immediate and it also had a lasting effect that went beyond the war period.

Propaganda was highly organized and regulated and was used to promote patriotism and nationalism within a country. There were many techniques that were used to create this propaganda so that it was believable and effective. To be effective, propaganda needs to be closely aligned with the deepest feelings within the country. It taps into these feelings and builds them. Therefore the propaganda in each country has subtle differences.

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For example, the pro-war posters from England commonly romanticized the war, portraying the soldiers as heroic and larger than life. Any corpses that were shown were usually unfocused and distant. Another common aspect of these posters was that they contained patriotic images, such as the country’s flag.

Propagandists used emotional appeals to connect with their audience. Slogans such as “Bleeding Belgium”1 created a feeling of sympathy and empathy towards Belgium against its aggressors and humanized the Belgian people. It also helped to justify to people in Allied countries why they should contribute to the war effort. Another method used was to demonize the enemy. This was done to create hatred between countries, by portraying the enemy as inhuman.

Propaganda of this type helped to distance the enemy from those who the propaganda was aimed at. The enemy was often portrayed as malicious and cold-blooded so that the audience did not care about them. This also helped to justify killing the enemy as they were not “like us”.

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Many different forms of propaganda were used, in order to reach a larger audience and make the propaganda less obvious. Some of these forms included posters, slogans and even music. Music was a prominent feature on both the home front and the battlefields throughout World War I. In contrast to a lot of the poetry being produced at that time which portrayed the grim reality of war, music was a common form of entertainment and socialization and formed a great medium for conveying these pro-war messages. Many governments recognized this and often used music as an effective means for inspiring pride, patriotism in the citizens in order to gain manpower, homeland support, funds and resources to sustain their military campaign. Music is very adaptable, so the melodies, beats, and dynamics can be adjusted to reflect its message and enhance its impact on the listener.

For example, politicians use musical fanfare at public rallies to build the momentum of the crowd and generate an emotional response in support of their causes, as is seen in political campaign songs and the protest songs of the 1960s and 1970s. In this way, music provides a weapon of social change which can be used to achieve specific goals because the lyrics, together with the melody and rhythms, take on different and more significant meanings than those that appear on the surface.

By promoting ideas and, often, inviting the listener to sing along in groups as a shared experience, music helps achieve the goals of the propagandist. Besides the instantaneous generation of emotions, the most effective propaganda songs have qualities that make them memorable while relaying their messages in a fashion that is not too emotionally extreme to be accepted.

An example of World War 1 propaganda in the form of music is an American song called Over There2. When this song was written America had just entered the war and had not yet experienced any of its horrors and was eager to march to war. However, anti-war sentiment was still strong among the American citizen. Over There capitalises on this excitement and encourages a sense of patriotism with listeners. George M. Cohan composed Over There, a march containing lyrics that stressed patriotism and a sense of national identity. It was one of the most successful American pro-war propaganda songs, enthusiastically inspiring the American spirit of confidence about the ability of their troops to end the war and return home safely. Since it was a march, it was easily sung and enjoyed, and proved to be an effective propaganda tool at the onset of the war for recruiting and homeland support. Inspired by this new spirit of pro-war enthusiasm, Americans eagerly accepted patriotic messages portrayed in songs, allowing them to serve as strong vehicles for propaganda.

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Posters were another successful form of propaganda, as they reached a larger audience than just people who could read and they were a popular medium that was also used to advertise and promote a range of events such as silent movies. The messages were often bold and immediate to catch people’s attention, and they tended to promote a single message. They used text in combination with a visual image to appeal to a broader audience.

Recruitment posters were one of the most common forms of propaganda. German propaganda emphasized their strength invincibility as well as the Allies inferiority. This belief in the superiority of German technology, leadership, determination and loyalty was instilled in the public through propaganda which showed the Allied armies and navies as helpless in the face of the German army and the English as bandaged, sweating and dripping blood, with his uniform in tatters.

One example of the approach taken in poster propaganda is a German poster that depicted the spread of England’s influence across Europe3. The poster showed England as a huge and ugly spider with a web encompassing European countries in a menacing way. The proud eagle was used to depict Germany, sitting to the side and not part of this menace. This was designed to stir up feelings in Germany against Britain and to convey the feeling that the treaty between Britain and France4 would allow Britain to dominate the region against the interests of Germany.

The effect of propaganda during and after World War 1 was tremendous. Propaganda was an essential part of mobilizing not only the armies but the whole populations to become active in the war effort and convincing those on the home front of the necessity of war. Propaganda also produced a feeling of hate between countries. This hate did not end with the political power or even with the soldiers; it extended to people of that nationality that had left the country many years before. The impact of propaganda produced during the war lasted many years after and can still even be seen today. The hate between countries that was shaped during the war still resounds in some countries. Professor Vernon Kellogg asked “will it be any wonder if, after the war, the people of the world, when they recognise any human as a German, will shrink aside so that they may not touch him as he passes, or stoop for stones to drive him from their path?”5 This shows to what extent propaganda reached every corner of these countries.

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Propaganda was used as another form of warfare, by both allied and central countries. It was used to sway public opinion and generate patriotism and support for the war effort. Many different mediums were used to spread these messages, so that a larger audience could be reached. Propaganda was a very effective tool in creating momentum and support for the war, but it also induced a feeling of hate between countries. Whether for good or evil propaganda was an effective part of warfare that was used by all.

1 The New York Times, Bleeding Belgium, October 29, 1914, Copyright The New York Times.

2 George M. Cohan, Over There


4 L’Entente Cordiale 1915.

5 Vernon Kellogg

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